Mandela auction reduces his nationally treasured personal items to monetary souvenirs

This past week, the nation has been in an uproar regarding the fast-approaching auction of anti-apartheid leader and former President Nelson Mandela’s personal effects. Picture: File

This past week, the nation has been in an uproar regarding the fast-approaching auction of anti-apartheid leader and former President Nelson Mandela’s personal effects. Picture: File

Published Jan 28, 2024


By Tswelopele Makoe

THIS past week, the nation has been in an uproar regarding the fast-approaching auction of anti-apartheid leader and former President Nelson Mandela’s personal effects.

More than 70 of Madiba’s personal belongings will be auctioned off by auction house Guernsey’s in New York on the 22nd of February 2024.

Among the items to be auctioned, are the former president’s personal and only identification (ID) book, his bible, his walking stick, handwritten letters, gifts from institutions and world leaders, his clothing, and even his hearing aids.

The endless list of the personal treasures belonging to Madiba will amount to about $2 million (about R38 million) to $3m, which will be awarded to Mandela’s daughter Makaziwe Mandela, and the rest of Madiba’s family.

The auction has been opposed by the SA Heritage Resource Agency (SAHRA), as well as Sport, Arts and Culture Minister Zizi Kodwa. It seems, however, that the family of the former president will proceed with the auction of Madiba’s close and personal possessions.

The predominant argument for the termination of the auction is the blatant belittlement of the symbolic significance of Madiba.

Mandela was not only the country's first ever black head of state, but he was also the first president to be elected in a fully representative democratic election.

In addition to this, he was an anti-apartheid stalwart, whose lifelong unwavering dedication to the justice, equality and human rights of all people are of extreme significance to the history and the present of the nation.

Mandela’s contributions directly shaped what is presently the best Constitution in the entire world. Mandela, much like innumerable anti-apartheid activists, deserves to have the remnants of his legacy safely preserved in his home country.

It is deplorable that one would dedicate his entire life to the betterment of his nation, and that such a legacy would not remain within the confines of the nation that he fought so reverently for.

It is more devastating that his family, those that embody the legacy and freedoms that he fought for, would promote the random dispersal of items that are internationally revered.

For Mandela, his legacy is one that not only belongs to his family, but it is also one that belongs to all of South Africa. It is not only Madiba’s knowledge, sentiments, passions, or ideologies that are inherited, it is the spaces and things which he encountered and utilised, such as his ID book, bible or his walking stick.

These are not mere items; they are the authentic representation of the character that was Madiba. His clothes speak to his fashion sense; his handwritten letters are a personal rendition of character, personality, and spirit.

The sale of his clothes is, in my view, invasive, disquieting, and tactless.

What is particularly unsettling about this auction, is that it does not acknowledge the significance of these items that belonged to a considerably prolific man.

Instead, they reduce the items to monetary souvenirs. Furthermore, as time goes by, these items will likely appreciate in value, to become rare and treasured relics.

It is a pity that these items will now be auctioned, and consequently exposed to defiling and desecration from countless unknown characters.

Mandela’s personal effects are a part of the cultural heritage of South Africa. They are of symbolic, historical, social, political, cultural, and democratic significance.

It is utterly inexcusable that they will be tossed into the auction gallows for random consumption. This auction not only highlights a serious undermining of the cultural assets of our country.

In this past 2023/24 financial year alone, the budget allocation for the department of Sports, Arts and Culture has dwindled by R3.2 million. In fact, arts and culture are oftentimes the first area to face budget cuts when economic growth slows.

Unfortunately, this means that the preservation of our arts, cultures, and historical sites is left precarious.

Pertinent organisations such as the Iziko Social History Centre (which houses a huge array of southern African historical artefacts and record), the National Library of South Africa, and Constitutional Hill (the home of the nation’s apex court), the prolific Market Theatre, to name a few, are being left increasingly vulnerable, as state support is pertinent to their survival. Indeed, these centres, museums, libraries, and research organisations, are vital to our ever-developing society.

They are bringing focus to our multiculturalism, our enthralling histories, and our wide array of freedoms. They are a pertinent part of the identity of our nation.

They are a central aspect to our development, nation-building, and social-cohesion. They are proof of our heritage, and our inherent tenacity.

Many of them, such as the Cradle of Humankind, hold the distinct remnants of the earliest-known members of humankind.

The history that is found in this nation alone is a testament to the quality and momentousness of our society. It is vital that we regard it as such.

Our modern, globalised, techno-centric society tends to only appreciate our arts and culture when they are gone. Although the auctioning of Madiba’s possessions could not be halted, this should serve as a stark warning to protect and preserve our historical remnants.

They deserve to be observed and appreciated by the people of the nation. It is pertinent that we are intentional in the preservation of our own cultures, artefacts, and historical assets.

As Olympian Peter Westbrook candidly declared: “So much of our future lies in preserving our past.”

* Tswelopele Makoe is a Gender Activist. She is also an Andrew W Mellon scholar, pursuing an MA Ethics at UWC, and affiliated with the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice. The views expressed are her own.